Bob Baffert receives his Hall of Fame blazer from D. Wayne Lukas.

Bob Baffert receives his Hall of Fame blazer from D. Wayne Lukas.

Skip Dickstein

2009 Hall of Fame: Head Bob

Bob Baffert gets his well-deserved plague in the Hall of Fame.

He’s been the most recognizable horseman on the North American racing scene for the past 13 years, in many ways Thoroughbred racing’s face and voice as it desperately tries to make fans from a new generation. To that end, he rarely turns down an interview or a chance to promote the sport he loves. But it’s not his public relations acumen that earned Bob Baffert his induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Aug. 14. It is because he has dominated on horse racing’s biggest stages since 1997, picking up the mantle previously worn by D. Wayne Lukas, a man whose career Baffert’s closely mirrors.

If anything, Baffert’s readiness with a quip and his proclivity for being at the center of the party have masked his obvious abilities as a horseman.

His longtime friend and client Mike Pegram noted, “Bob’s always been the most competitive and serious person about the business, but people didn’t see that for a long time because he was acting like a clown.”

Baffert’s accomplishments are nothing to be laughed at. Three Kentucky Derby victories, four in the Preakness, and a Belmont Stakes (all gr. I) win highlight his rap sheet. Throw in seven Breeders’ Cup wins, six of them coming in the past 11 years, a dozen championships, and three Eclipse Awards as top conditioner, and then try and find another trainer who comes close to equalling these feats over that period. Let me save you the time; nobody does.

And yet his path to Saratoga Springs has had its share of bumps and detours. While many have delighted in Baffert’s breezy persona that sets him far apart from the bulk of his peers who tend to be tight-lipped and uncomfortable when dealing with the public or the media, Baffert’s glibness and sharp wit have rubbed others the wrong way. And because his star shone so brightly, carrying him to celebrity status, people felt it was their right to judge his personal life. Very few, if any, other participants in this business have seen their private lives subjected to that kind of scrutiny.

Some detractors even succeeded in postponing Baffert’s eligibility for the Hall of Fame, hauling his name off the 2008 Hall ballot because he supposedly hadn’t trained enough Thoroughbreds 25 years earlier to qualify.

Baffert grew up on his family’s nondescript cattle farm in Nogales, Ariz., a dusty outpost on the Mexican border. His father, Bill, affectionately known to everyone in or close to the Baffert clan as “Chief,” raced a few Quarter Horses around the state, and young Bob absorbed each lesson his father taught him.

“He loved the horses, and that love rubbed off on me,” Baffert said. “I’d never be where I am today without him. Wherever he went, I went. We were a team.

“When I was 10, he’d let me ride with the cowboys into town. I fell in love with all of it, and once you get that connection to horses, it’s hard to get away from them.”

The fact the family’s horses were of modest skill likely aided Baffert’s education.

“It was a lot of trial and error—mostly error,” he noted. “You had to get to the point where you could fix problems. There was no medication. You used Absorbine and alcohol and rubbed those legs until the filling was gone. I’d rub for hours and get those legs tight while my dad sat on a bucket watching. I’ve seen every jackpot a horse can get himself into, and when a problem comes up today, I remember a horse having had it in the past and remember some off-the-wall remedy I learned working on those Quarter Horses.”

His father bought him his first saddle and then surreptitiously collected all the other equipment Bob needed to ride Quarter Horses, the pair keeping it a secret from Baffert’s mother, Ellie, who felt riding was much too dangerous for her children. Baffert outgrew riding and began training, rising to the top of the Quarter Horse ranks in Arizona before moving to greener pastures in California, where he was able to repeat his success. He trained Gold Coast Express to win the Champion of Champions at Los Alamitos, Quarter Horse racing’s equivalent of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I).

A longtime client from Arizona, Hal Earnhardt, had introduced Baffert to Pegram, and the two men, along with Bob Roth, backed Baffert’s transition to Thoroughbreds.

“Mike and those guys put me in there—they had the confidence in me,” Baffert said. “Mike used to tell me, ‘I can get you to the plate, but you’ve got to swing the bat.’ I had to go through a crash course in training Thoroughbreds. I told them how much stuff I had to learn, and they let me claim some horses and piddle around until I could get a handle on it.”

It took a couple of years before Baffert found the handle, but the deal was sealed when Thirty Slews, the first horse Baffert picked out of a Keeneland yearling sale, won the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) for Pegram and partners. If there is one constant to Baffert’s success, it has been his ability to pick out horses at bargain prices that have gone on to achieve glory, such as dual classic winners Silver Charm and Real Quiet.

For Earnhardt, Baffert has turned fillies like Soviet Sojourn, Behaving Badly, and Shameful into stakes winners, and El Corredor into a grade I winner and stallion. Indian Charlie, out of Soviet Sojourn, was a grade I winner who is now a successful sire. Two-time champion Indian Blessing is by Indian Charlie out of Shameful.

“Picking out talent comes naturally,” said Baffert. “Wayne Lukas and I both had to do it the hard way, because with Quarter Horses you pick out your own horses and develop them. You pick them out yourself, buy them, break them, and get them ready. You do everything from the bottom up. And because you run trials and finals on the same day, you have to train them to peak at a given time. That was nerve-wracking, because you didn’t want them running too fast in the trials, but you had to have them training within a length of their potential. I think that Quarter Horse experience was huge in getting me where I am today.”

Thirty Slews, along with Arches of Gold, Gundaghia, Letthebighossroll, and Batroyale kept Baffert in the ball game through the early and mid 1990s, but it was the California-bred Cavonnier, winner of the 1996 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), who brought him to center stage. Although that year marked Baffert’s first trip to the Kentucky Derby, it would also mark the last time he spent the days leading up to that race not surrounded by dozens of reporters, cameras, and notebooks. Cavonnier led the length of the Churchill Downs stretch until the last jump, when the Lukas-trained Grindstone pipped him on the wire. Most would have been crestfallen, believing their one chance to win the world’s most important race had cruelly been taken from them. Not Baffert, whose attitude remained upbeat.

“How many guys get the chance to be so close?” he reasoned. “If you saw the tracks I trained on in Arizona, believe me, I never forgot where I came from.”

It didn’t hurt that he would unbelievably come back and win the next two runnings of the Derby. Gutsy Silver Charm would be the horse Baffert would be most closely associated with. The charismatic gray duelled throughout his 2- and 3-year-old campaigns with Free House, a competition that first sent California racing fans into ecstasy and then boiled over into the 1997 Triple Crown series. A $16,500 yearling, Silver Charm was all heart, coming back from a Santa Anita Derby defeat to Free House to turn the tables on that one and Captain Bodgit, whom he held off by a desperate head, in the Kentucky Derby. Baffert, after buying Silver Charm as a 2-year-old for $85,000, offered him first to Robert and Beverly Lewis, who accepted. That created some angst for the trainer.

“When I won that first Derby, I remember Mike (Pegram) with tears in his eyes afterward, because he was so happy for me, even though the horse was somebody else’s,” Baffert said. “And the thing is, it could have been Mike’s, because he would have bought Silver Charm in a heartbeat if I had approached him. But there was never any, ‘Why didn’t you offer him to me?’ Mike’s not that type of person. He’s always felt that if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be, and that’s the way both of us have always been.”

It didn’t take but one year for Pegram’s good karma to hit home in Louisville. Real Quiet, a $17,000 yearling, also turned a Santa Anita Derby defeat (to Earnhardt’s Indian Charlie) into victory in the Kentucky Derby for the owner and his longtime pal.

“That was one of my biggest accomplishments, winning the Kentucky Derby with Real Quiet,” stated Baffert. “That was huge, to be able to thank Mike with the grandest prize of them all.”

Both Silver Charm and Real Quiet also won the Preakness, further burnishing Baffert’s credentials as racing’s biggest human star. While Baffert fed off the spotlight like a vampire drinking blood, there were grumblings about how he treated his help and run-ins with track superintendents, racing secretaries, and other trainers. Those reactions were part jealousy, part earned, and part Baffert trying to be the best horseman he could.

“When you’re winning, you make enemies,” Baffert explained. “At the same time, sure, I’ve said some stupid things that got me in trouble. But I will go to track supers and ask what they’re doing. If I have horses getting hurt, I want to know what’s going on, and I’m one of the only ones who’ll speak up.”

Baffert won two-thirds of the 2001 Triple Crown with Point Given and repeated that feat one year later with War Emblem. After a lull following the deaths of major clients John Mabee, Bob Lewis, and Ahmed Salman, Baffert returned with a vengeance, winning a pair of Breeders’ Cup events in both 2007 and 2008, including the impeccable training job he did with Pegram and partners’ Midnight Lute, who repeated his 2007 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) victory despite having raced just twice in the interim.

As of Aug. 2, Baffert had notched 1,821 wins from 8,644 starts, a 21% strike rate, and his charges have earned more than $145 million. He added another accomplishment when Misremembered won the July 18 Swaps Stakes (gr. II), marking Baffert’s first added-money victory as a breeder.

Having friends and especially family, including his parents, with him at the Hall of Fame induction will make that event very special for Baffert, who admits he’s likely to get emotional.

“The Hall of Fame is about my dad,” he said. “My father would have loved to be a trainer, but he had seven kids to raise. He’s living his dream through me and he’s always been my biggest fan. Having him there is going to be huge, because to me, I’m up there representing him. It’s hard for me to actually accept that I’m going into the Hall of Fame. It hasn’t hit me yet. I’ve never had goals; I’ve never had a plan.

“I hate to get up in front of people and speak. I love telling stories, but I can’t give speeches, and it’s going to be very emotional for me with my parents there. It doesn’t take much to get me going. I might need a couple of drinks beforehand.”

Although Baffert will never be known for beating the sun to his barn every morning, no one can minimize the amount of work he puts into his operation, with 60 horses currently under his care. His commitment need not be questioned.

“I love it to death,” he stated. “I think that’s why I’ve been successful. I just love going there every day. You’ll never hear me complain about working seven days a week. (Wife) Jill gets upset sometimes; it’s tough being married and raising a family while you’re also doing this. But no sacrifice, no victory.”